“Untangling Whiteness”: Reflection and Action
October 15, 2020 | 9:30 AM - 4 PM (Virtual)
These are the opening words of Lillian Smith’s “There are things to do” from the Winter 1942-43 issue of South Today. Over the course of the article, Smith outlines everyday things that white readers, who she addresses the piece to, can do to end racism, segregation, and oppression.
The protests that occurred for weeks after the murder of George Floyd highlight that the war that Smith, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Cliff and Virginia Durr, Rosa Parks, Lonnie King, John Lewis, and others fought is not over. The protests have been an awakening for many whites about their own privilege and complacency in systems that continue to perpetuate inequality, and they have begun to realize, as the slogan states, “Silence is violence.”
Smith understood the ways that the construction of race strangles the roots of our existence. She writes, in Killers of the Dream, “that the warped, distorted frame we have put around every Negro child from birth is around every white child also.” That frame wraps itself around the roots of the tree, stunting and warping its growth, strangling it and preventing it from growing straight.
“Untangling Whiteness” is both a symposium for reflection on whiteness—its privilege and its construction—and a call to action to lead us to a more equitable society for all. Lillian Smith knew the importance of symbols and their power on the mind. In 1944’s “The World: Our Children’s Home,” she wrote about training children “to respect other people and their basic needs regardless of color, religion, economic status, or sex.” “Untangling Whiteness” heeds Smith’s clarion call by calling upon us to do the same through our actions, our policies, and our work.
In the introduction to the 1961 edition of Killers of the Dream, Smith writes, “I wrote [this book] because I had to find out what life in a segregated culture had done to me, one person.” Smith confronted her own whiteness in the process of her work, and her reflection and action inspire “Untangling Whiteness.” Until one confronts oneself, action cannot occur.